Badlands National Park - What to See and Do

Badlands National Park - What to See and Do


After a day packed with travel and sightseeing, we arrived at Badlands National Park just after dark. We had hoped to catch sunset at the park but settled for a few photos of the setting sun on a Highway 90 overpass accompanied by a quick stop at Wall Drug.

We spent one night and one day in Badlands National Park, just before our amazing trip to Custer State Park, which we also wrote about.

Sunset near Wall Drug near Badlands National Park

Even though we’d arrived at Badlands National Park later than planned, we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at Cedar Pass Lodge, where we had reservations for the night. After experiencing the “rustic” cabins at Colter Bay in Grand Teton National Park, this one was a pleasure in which to stay! These relatively new and charming cabins have so much to offer. The lodge is located near the visitor center and in the middle of the park making it a great base from which to explore the incredible landscape of Badlands National Park. Our double queen cabin with a cot was clean, well-equipped, and surprisingly spacious for our family of five. We especially enjoyed the back porch with Adirondack chairs and a picnic table where we ate our breakfast with views of the rugged badlands!

Cedar Pass Lodge at Badlands National Park

We were glad to have stayed overnight in the park, so we could hit the trails early and beat the summer heat. However, regardless of where you are staying, the question is where to start?




Badlands National Park in the same region as Wind Cave National Park and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which are featured in our 20+ page itinerary for Wind Cave National Park, Badlands National Park and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.


Some arrive at Badlands National Park while passing through the region and have only a few hours to spare. For those just traveling through, the 31-mile Badlands Loop Road offers numerous overlooks and opportunities to stretch your legs and take some amazing photos. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center (closest to the Big Badlands Overlook and near the Interior entrance) is a great introduction to the park if arriving from either the Interior or Northeast entrance. We recommend stops at the following overlooks--Big Badlands (near the northeast entrance to the park), White River Valley, Yellow Mounds and Pinnacles. The Bigfoot Pass Overlook is a great place for a picnic lunch under the sheltered tables.

Badlands National Park

Yellow Mounds Overlook in Badlands National Park





If you have a bit more time, we recommend taking a short hike on one of the park’s easy trails. The Door and Window Trails can be reached via the same parking area (northeast of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center). These trails are doable even for young children. The Door Trail starts as a boardwalk that ends in a break in the Badlands wall. Beyond this point, the trail is more rugged. You can step off the boardwalk and down into the badlands to follow a worn path marked by yellow posts. The nearby Window Trail ends at a natural window in the Badlands wall.

Note: for a full view of hikes of all types in Badlands National Park, check out the Badlands National Park hiking guide at the NPS site.

The Door Trail in Badlands National Park


The Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is another short trail located not far from the visitor center. This half-mile loop, just below the Badlands wall, provides easy access to views of South Dakota’s badlands and across to the great plains. Although the start of the loop follows boardwalks, there are a series of stairs leading to the viewing platform at the trail’s high point. We chose to take the route to the left which first passes through a juniper forest before leading up to the viewing platform.

Badlands National Park, Cliff Shelf Nature Trail

The Fossil Exhibit Trail is an easy 0.25-mile trail along a boardwalk. The walk features Fossil Replicas.  Be advised, that this is one of the most crowded areas in the park!





If you have a little bit of extra time and aren’t afraid of heights, we highly recommend the Notch Trail, located at the south end of the Door and Window parking area. Although it is rated moderate/strenuous on the NPS website, the only challenging part for some is a steep wooden ladder. For our kids, that was their favorite part of the hike! There are also a few spots with drop-offs (since the trail does trace a cliff’s edge after the climb up the ladder). It is best to follow the trail markers and pay attention to any signs. The trail leads to the “the Notch” overlook which provides views of the White River Valley and the great plains. If you look down below, you can see the Cliff Shelf Nature as well!

See our blog to catch a detailed overview of Notch Trail, including what you can expect to see, what to bring with you and when is the best time of the day to go on the hike.

The Notch Trail in Badlands National Park

The Notch Trail in Badlands National Park

The Notch Trail in Badlands National Park

More adventurous hikers who don’t mind a short but steep climb should try the Saddle Pass Trail. This trail is only about 0.25 miles to the top, but don’t let that fool you! This trail is physically demanding, especially in the heat! However, if you are up for the challenge, a climb up the pass yields amazing views from atop the Badlands Wall. The trail also connects with the Castle and Medicine Root Trails, if you have extra time. At the very least, it is worth walking a short distance on one of the trails through the mixed grass prairie. Descending the Saddle Pass Trail is challenging due to loose rock and sediment. You’ll need good hiking shoes or boots to tackle the difficult terrain. This is not a trail on which to wear flip-flops or crocs!

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park, Door Trail

For those a little more adventurous and on cooler days, the Castle Trail is 10 miles long and considered to be one of the top trails in the park. The trail is relatively flat (only 500 ft. of total elevation gain) and heads through the rolling plains. This is a nice contrast to the Badlands.  While this trail is long, it is worth the effort if you have the time.

The Badlands has a unique open hike policy that is rare in national parks. It allows visitors and hikers to go off trail to better experience the incredible geologic features and landscapes of the badlands. However, keep in mind that the terrain is fragile, and off-trail hikers should always take the proper safety precautions to avoid getting lost or injured.

{NOTE: Before you set out on any trails, no matter the time of year, bring plenty of water and wear sunscreen.  There isn’t any shelter on most of the hikes.}



  • Park entry fees are $20 / vehicle, with prices lower for motorcycles ($10). These passes are good for 7 days.
  • Like most National Parks, Badlands National Park is open every day of the year for 24 hours a day. Visitor center hours fluctuate throughout the year, so you’ll want to check before your visit.  You’ll also want to check sunset, and you’ll want to make sure you allow at least 2 hours to drive the loop and be able to see the viewpoints, even though we recommend spending around 4 hours.
  • When driving the loop, the restrooms are separated by quite a distance.
  • Park attendance soars starting in June and continuing through August. May and September are cooler months, draw fewer visitor and are therefore some of the more pleasant months to visit the park.
  • There are two campgrounds located in the park, and we recommend reading from the National Park site for details on camping in Badlands.
  • If you have any desire to stay in the park at the Cedar Pass Lodge, you’ll want to book well in advance. You can make reservations for the Cedar Pass Lodge
  • Nearby lodging can be found in Wall, SD, but more plentiful lodging can be found in Rapid City, SD. Rapid city is only about one hour away, so it is definitely a good spot to stay if you only plan on being in the park for a day.
  • Leave your drones at home. They aren’t permitted at any NPS location.
  • Stay hydrated! The high elevation and dry climate of the park can cause dehydration especially in summer, when temperatures can reach over 90F fairly early in the day.


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          We are Amy & Pete Brahan. Very simply, we are passionate about our National Parks and Public Lands and explore them with our three kids whenever we can.

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